Martin Luther: A Spiritual Biography | Book Review


“Luther was a problem,” writes Herman Selderhuis in Martin Luther: A Spiritual Biography. “Certainly for the pope and the emperor, but often he was also a problem for his fellow reformers.”

However, Luther was problematic to those people in different ways — good and bad — which complicates his legacy.

On October 31, 2017, we celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. On that date in 1517, Luther published his 95 Theses challenging “the power and efficacy of indulgences.” Today, November 10, is Luther’s birthday. (He was born in 1483.) These dates give us a suitable occasion to assess Luther’s legacy and learn what lessons we can from it.

Let us begin with the positive. No less an authority than Calvin said that Luther “gave the Gospel back to us.” By this, he meant the doctrine of justification by faith. Christ alone (solus Christus) saves sinners by grace alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide).

“This article of faith cannot be compromised,” wrote Luther about justification by faith in The Smalkald Articles of 1537. “Nothing can be taken away from it, even if the earth or heaven or whatever should fall.” Why? Because “if this article remains standing, the church remains standing, but if this article falls, the church also falls.”

Luther came to believe this gospel based on his close reading of Paul, especially the apostle’s letters to the Romans and the Galatians. Romans 1:17 says, “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed — a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The just will live by faith.’”

And that brings us to a second positive aspect of Luther’s legacy: the authority of Scripture. Luther was a professor of the Bible at the University of Wittenberg, able to read Scripture in its original languages, Hebrew and Greek. It was his close reading of Scripture that led him to begin to question the penitential practices of the late medieval Catholic church.

These questions first became public in the 95 Theses. When Catholic authorities pushed back on Luther’s questions, they drove him deeper into Scripture. The more he read, the more he questioned, until he concluded that Scripture alone (sola Scriptura) is the final authority for Christian faith and practice — not papal authority, church tradition or even the decisions of church councils.

When called upon to recant his beliefs at the 1521 Diet of Worms, standing before the Holy Roman Emperor, German princes, church leaders and a representative of the pope himself, Luther refused:

If, then, I am not convinced by testimonies of Scripture or by clear rational arguments — for I do not believe in the pope or in the councils alone, since it has been established that they have often erred and contradicted each other — I am bound by the Bible texts that I have quoted. And as long as my conscience is captive to the Word of God, I cannot nor do I want to retract anything when things become doubtful. Salvation will be threatened if you go against your conscience. May God help me. Amen.

The famous words, “Here I stand, I can do no other,” were evidently added at a later time, but they capture the spirit of Luther’s refusal.

Later theologians called sola fide the material principle of the Reformation and sola Scriptura its formal principle. The principles answer humanity’s two most basic questions: How can I be saved? And how do I know? Luther’s rediscovery of them is the core of his positive legacy, in my opinion. Certainly they created problems for both the pope and the emperor, but they were necessary problems, essential reforms to a corrupt medieval church, and good news in every age.

As Selderhuis noted, however, Luther created other problems for his fellow reformers that can be neither overlooked nor excused. No doubt a man who takes a stand against the religious and political powers of his day must have a spine of steel. Unfortunately, Luther could be stiff-necked and abusive toward his fellow reformers on issues where compromise and gentle language were necessary.

Luther’s closest colleague, Philip Melanchthon, bore the brunt of that abuse. Luther’s temper was so well-known that Melanchthon usually served as a buffer between him and other Protestant reformers. Two years after Luther’s death, Melanchthon offered this blunt assessment: “I had to bear an almost degrading bondage because Luther was led by his militant temperament and exhibited a cocky self-righteousness, rather than that he would pay attention to his deferential position and the common good.”

But Luther’s cantankerousness toward allies pales in comparison to the worst aspects of his legacy: his violent rhetoric. Two examples should suffice. In 1524–25, German peasants rose in revolt against the aristocracy. Many had been inspired by Luther’s words and personal example, and Luther himself was initially sympathetic to their complaints.

But by 1525, Luther felt the peasants had gone too far, and encouraged authorities to deal harshly with them:

whosoever can, should smite, strangle, and stab, secretly or publicly, and should remember that there is nothing more poisonous, pernicious, and devilish than a rebellious man. Just as one must slay a mad dog, so, if you do not fight the rebels, they will fight you, and the whole country with you.

Then there’s what Luther said about Jews. Early in his career, Luther had hoped Jews would convert to Christianity once they heard the proclamation of the true gospel. Later in life, though, his attitude took a much darker turn. In Concerning the Jews and Their Lies (1542), he advocated authorities take specific measures against Jews. Let me quote Selderhuis at length.

First of all, synagogues should be burned because that is where the blasphemy takes place. For the same reason, Jews’ homes should be destroyed. Their prayer books and their Talmuds should be confiscated. Since their money had been stolen from Christians, Luther thought [a false but common belief in the middle ages], their money and jewelry should be seized. That money must be used for the support of Jews who had become Christians. Jews who did not qualify would have to earn their money by means of forced labor.

These are hard words for anyone to read after the Holocaust, especially when we know that Nazis used Luther’s remarks in their anti-Semitic propaganda. They certainly tarnish the Protestant celebration of Luther’s positive legacy.

So, what do we make of Luther today? After narrating Luther’s life honestly, warts and all, Selderhuis concludes: “Luther needed the grace that he himself had proclaimed. Throughout his life he remained a good example of his view that a Christian remains a sinner all his life and remains justified at the same time.”

Simul iustus et peccator is how Luther expressed that view in Latin.

On Luther’s birthday and the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, simul iustus et peccator summarizes Luther’s legacy, both the good and the bad. Herman Selderhuis should be thanked for writing a biography that so skillfully narrates the life of Martin Luther and helps us interpret its complicated meaning.

 

Book Reviewed
Herman Selderhuis, Martin Luther: A Spiritual Biography (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017).

P.S. I wrote this review for InfluenceMagazine.com. It appears here by permission.

P.P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

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Martin Luther: A Late Medieval Life | Book Review


For nearly 70 years, English-language readers have been well served by Roland H. Bainton’s classic biography of Martin Luther, Here I Stand. A slew of new biographies has come off the presses in time for the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, but I still consider Bainton’s the best choice for the general reader, especially if you’re only going to read one book this year about him or the Protestant Reformation.

However, if you’re going to read more than one book, I think you should consider Volker Leppin’s Martin Luther: A Late Medieval Life, translated by Rhys Bezzant. Leppin is professor of church history at the University of Tübingen in Germany, a well-regarded scholar of the late medieval period, and author of a scholarly, German-language biography of Luther, Martin Luther: Gestalten Des Mittelalters Und Der Renaissance (2010), which this much shorter book epitomizes.

Leppin’s biography is a model of economy, clarity, and historical thinking. In his Foreword, Timothy J. Wengert highlights what makes this biography distinctive: “Leppin’s chief contribution to our understanding of Luther stems from his careful distinguishing of Luther’s later accounts of early events in his life from earlier accounts, especially given the influence of the later accounts in relating Luther’s life story.” Wengert also writes that Leppin “demythologizes the standard view of Luther.”

Whether or not you agree with all of Leppin’s demythologizations—and there are ongoing scholarly debates about some of them—it is always helpful, in the pursuit of historical knowledge, to know where the controversies lie.

 

Book Reviewed
Volker Leppin, Martin Luther: A Late Medieval Life, trans. Rhys Bezzant (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Reformation Reading Recommendations


The Protestant Reformation was a bookish renewal movement, so it’s not surprising that publishers are celebrating its 500th anniversary with a slew of new books about Martin Luther and his spiritual progeny. No one has time to read them all — not even this magazine editor — but I nevertheless have some recommendations.

For the life of Luther, I recommend Roland H. Bainton’s 1950 classic, Here I Stand. Bainton was a church historian at Yale Divinity School, but he wore his learning lightly in this biography. Here I Stand hits the highlights of Luther’s life; notes the social, political and religious contexts of his work; summarizes the development of his theology; quotes him judiciously; and keeps the narrative moving so that readers don’t get bored.

In recommending Bainton, I don’t mean to slight any of the other biographies that have been published this year. The number of authors who have written competently about Luther include — in alphabetical order — Craig Harline, Volker Leppin, Peter Marshall, Eric Metaxas, Richard Rex, Lyndal Roper, Heinz Schilling, Herman Selderhuis and others. I assume that most readers will read only one biography if they read any, and I think Bainton best serves the interests of the general reader. If you like Bainton, feel free to pick up one of the others.

Two books remind us Luther’s marriage to Katharina von Bora was a life-changing event, for him personally and for the Protestant Reformation more broadly. Ruth A. Tucker’s Katie Luther: First Lady of the Reformation ably reconstructs von Bora’s life from sparse sources, painting the picture of a fascinating and in many ways essential figure of the Reformation. Michelle DeRusha’s Katharina and Martin Luther: The Radical Marriage of a Runaway Nun and a Renegade Monk reminds us how scandalous their marriage was in the context of their times, how important it was to Luther and how it shaped Protestant views of marriage through his writings.

For elementary-age children, I recommend Reformation ABCs: The People, Places, and Things of the Reformation — from A to Z by Stephen J. Nicholls and Ned Bustard. For students, Dacia Palmerino and Andrea Ciponte’s Renegade: Martin Luther, The Graphic Biography — a graphic novel — is definitely worth a look.

For the writings of Luther, there are several inexpensive one-volume collections. John Dillenberger’s 1962 Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings is still the best. It includes The Ninety-Five Theses as well as Luther’s three seminal treatises from 1520: An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and The Freedom of a Christian.

For the history of the Protestant Reformation more generally, check out Brad S. Gregory’s Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts that Continue to Shape Our World. Gregory briskly traces the early history of the major branches of the Reformation — Lutheran, Anabaptist, Reformed and Anglican — and argues that Luther’s reforms led unwittingly to the secularism of the modern world. It’s an interesting study in the unintended consequences of ideas. Alec Ryrie’s Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World traces the history of the Reformation from Luther to Pentecostals. Rodney Stark — a sociologist of religion, not a historian — shows why his colleagues call him (jokingly, I assume) the “skunk at the picnic” in his book, Reformation Myths: Five Centuries of Misconceptions and (Some) Misfortunes. One of the myths he challenges is “Protestant secularization,” which makes this book a good counterpoint to Gregory’s.

Martin Luther | Book Review


On the occasion of the Protestant Reformation’s five hundredth anniversary, books about Martin Luther have been pouring off the presses. Eric Metaxas’ Martin Luther will probably sell the most copies, perhaps more than all the other combined. It debuted at number seven on the October 22, 2017 New York Times’s bestseller list. It is still a bestseller on Amazon.com.

I had high hopes for this biography. Luther lived a big life, one of world-historical importance. His actions laid the foundations of the modern world, a result that he, steeped in medieval assumptions about Christendom, would most likely have abhorred. (On that topic, see Brad Gregory’s Rebel in the Ranks.) The public needs a standard, readable account of such a life in every generation, and I had hoped that Metaxas’ biography would be the worthy successor to Roland H. Bainton’s classic, Here I Stand.

Metaxas on Luther is good, but not great. Martin Luther covers the same ground as Here I Stand—the latter is the first reference in Metaxas’ bibliography—but Bainton tells the story with more economy and verve. Metaxas is a beautiful writer, but compared to Bainton, I felt he got lost too often in the narrative weeds. For example, while Metaxas writes about Luther’s insight into the meaning of the phrase, the righteousness of God, as well as about his articulation of the doctrine of justification by faith, neither word—righteousness, justification—has an entry in the index. So, a researcher looking for Metaxas’ treatment of Luther’s theology—the doctrine on which the church stands or falls!—won’t know where to find it in the book.

On occasion, Luther’s word choice and his drawing of extended metaphors is too precocious. He uses the Latin word Aetatitis in chapter headings, for example, to mark the years of Luther’s life. I’m still stuck on his use of the word ensorcelling, when the more well-known enchanting or fascinating would’ve worked just as well. And why he insists on using Kathie instead of Katie as the diminutive for Luther’s wife, Katharina von Bora, is beyond me. It’s like Metaxas feels he needs to break with convention just for the heck of it.

Martin Luther is probably too long and involved for the general reader, but not researched thoroughly enough for the academic reader. It doesn’t advance any new insight about Luther, dependent on other studies in that regard. Like I said, good, but not great. If you’re going to read just one book about Luther this year, I’d stick with Here I Stand.

 

Book Reviewed:

Eric Metaxas Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (New York: Viking, 2017).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Rebel in the Ranks | Book Review


October 31, 2017, marks the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. On that date in 1517, an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther posted a document calling for academic debate on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, Saxony. The posting of this document — titled, Disputation on the Power of Indulgences, or more popularly Ninety-five Theses — inaugurated the process whereby Luther broke with the Roman Catholic Church, the end results of which are still felt today.

The consequences of the Protestant Reformation are the subject of Brad S. Gregory’s new book, Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World. Luther and other Protestants intended to reform the Church. That was their stated aim. However, it is not that consequence, but three other unintended consequences that capture Gregory’s attention.

The first was “the proliferation of so many rival versions of Protestantism.” Protestants agree that Scripture alone (sola Scriptura) is the final authority for Christians in matters of faith and practice. They came to this view as their debates with Roman Catholic theologians about indulgences and other matters raised the question of what authority everyone must acknowledge as the final authority in such matters.

The problem was that acknowledging Scripture’s final authority did not result in a unified interpretation of Scripture. Instead, Protestants argued amongst themselves: Lutheran versus Zwinglian versus Reformed versus Anabaptist. To this day, while there is one Roman Catholic Church (at least nominally), there is no one Protestant Church — only Protestant churches, who still disagree among themselves, often to the point of breaking communion with one another.

Secondly, Gregory argues, “Just as the reformers never intended to pave the way for any and all interpretations of God’s Word, so they never intended to facilitate endless doctrinal controversy or recurrent violence, let alone to divide Christendom itself.” Again, their stated aim was to reform the Church, not to break it. And yet, it broke nonetheless.

Part of the reason for this was that in the 16th and 17th centuries, religion was always “more-than-religion,” as Gregory puts it. He explains what he means by way of a contrast: “Religion today is a distinct area of life — separate from your career, professional relationships, recreational activities, consumer behavior, and so on. None of this was true in the early sixteenth century: religion was neither a matter of choice nor separate from the rest of life.” Because of this, controversies in religion became controversies in society, culture, politics and economics. The Wars of Religion in the 16th and 17th century were the most violent expressions of these conflicts, but not the only ones.

These two unintended consequences, in combination, defined the major political problem modernity had to solve. If people cannot agree on how to interpret the Bible, and if their disagreements lead to social conflict and war, what must be done to achieve peace? The answer that began to emerge in the 17th century can be captured in a single word: secularization.

Gregory defines a secular society as “one in which religion would be separate from public life, becoming instead a matter of individual preference.” If religion in medieval society was more-than-religion, then religion in modern society had to become less-than-life. It had to become a component, not the whole. This diminishment of the scope of religion was accompanied by an increase in the scope of personal freedom. Medieval Christendom may have been dominated by a Christian worldview, but in modern society, individuals “can believe whatever they want to believe about morality or purpose and live their lives accordingly.” In short, as Gregory notes, “The Reformation is a paradox: a religious revolution that led to the secularization of society.”

There are benefits to this secularization, of course. Religious freedom — more broadly, freedom of conscience — is the most obvious one. But there are downsides as well. Secularization was meant to bring peace among warring Christian nations, but secular societies have not proven themselves to be necessarily peaceful ones, as the fate of 20th-century Communist nations so tragically attests.

Indeed, secular societies are characterized by what Gregory calls “hyperpluralism.” If it was hard to unite societies divided between Protestants and Catholics (or among Protestants), how easy will it be to unite a society where 51 flavors of religion, non-religion and irreligion are on offer?

“So here we are,” Gregory concludes, “so very free and so very far away from Martin Luther and what he started in a small town in Germany five hundred years ago.”

 

Book Reviewed
Brad S. Gregory, Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World (New York: HarperOne, 2017).

P.S. This review was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.

P.P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Here I Stand | Book Review


The Protestant Reformation marks its five-hundredth anniversary this coming October 31st. On that date in 1517, Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. The theses called into question the selling of indulgences, which the pope granted to reduce time in Purgatory for either the buyer or the buyer’s intended beneficiaries.

“As soon as the coin in the coffer rings,” preached Johannes Tetzel of these indulgences, “the soul from purgatory springs.” Sales of indulgences were quite lucrative, helping Albert of Brandenburg buy the archbishopric of Mainz and Leo X build St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. The text of the Ninety-five Theses was largely biblical and theological, but the subtext was a German critique of Italian grandiosity.

Luther intended his theses to instigate a “disputation…on the power and efficacy of indulgences,” as the incipit to the printed placard put it. He didn’t intend to divide the Church or rend the unity of medieval Europe. Like many of his contemporaries, he wanted to reform Catholicism and restore the simplicity of the gospel. Dissemination of his theses set in motion a process which did that, though in ways he could not foresee that All Hallows’ Eve.  After Luther, Christianity and Christendom would never be the same. We moderns live in his world-historical shadow.

Here I Stand by Roland H. Bainton narrates the events of Luther’s life, focusing on the years between the posting of the Ninety-five Theses in 1517 and the publication of The Augsburg Confession in 1530. Though Luther was born in 1487 and died in 1546, 1517–1530 is the crucial period. Luther’s theology matured: he defined the doctrine of justification by faith, translated the New Testament, revised the liturgy, and wrote catechisms for adults and children alike. It was also during this period that Luther broke decisively with Rome; the Evangelicals divided into Lutheran, Reformed, and Anabaptist camps; and Christian princes intervened in political disputes, protecting the nascent Lutheran movement. In these years, religious radicals took over Müntzer, German peasants revolted and Luther’s theology of both church and state advocated a middle way between extremes.

Bainton’s prose is clear and his narrative forward-moving. Here I Stand is a work of genuine scholarship—with a chronology, bibliography, and index—but it is written for a broad audience. If you’re interested in Luther’s life, or the history of the Reformation, I encourage you to read this biography first.

Here I Stand was first published in 1950, but I read the 2009 reprint in the Hendrickson Classic Biography series. It is available as a reprint from other publishers too.

 

Book Reviewed:
Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: The Life of Martin Luther (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2009; orig. 1950).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

What Does Wittenberg Have to Do with Azusa Street? #InfluencePodcast


Check out my podcast with Frank Macchia, who gives a Pentecostal perspective on the Protestant Reformation…

This is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com.